Should I Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?

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Most Americans drink. That’s so much the case that an estimated 1 in 4 adults who drink have problematic relationships with alcohol and may qualify for a substance use disorder. Putting an end to that cycle of alcohol abuse can be a powerful step in the direction of reclaiming your life, your social life, and your health – but it’s not something that’s easy. In fact, many people quit and relapse multiple times before eventually finding the approach they need to stay sober. If you’re trying to quit, you likely have several options, and one of them is “cold turkey”.

This approach is the classic and often the one that’s pushed in the media and by friends and family. After all, if you wanted to stop drinking you could just put alcohol down and never look back right? That’s how it works in the movies. Unfortunately, really life is rarely as straightforward and you’ll often have a lot of considerations and nuance to everything, including quitting cold turkey.

What is Cold Turkey?

Going “cold turkey” means quitting alcohol all at once. That normally results in a period of withdrawal, in which you experience sweating, shaking, cold and flu symptoms, and other withdrawal symptoms over about one to two weeks. Many people get so sick they call in sick from work and spend the two weeks in bed. And about 2 in 10 people with alcohol dependence (meaning if you have withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit) experience potentially life-threatening complications like delirium tremens.

Going cold turkey means that you go through these withdrawal symptoms on your own. Often, that means stress to your body, to your heart, and to your lungs. You run risks of seizures. You can also run risks of dehydration and choking, both of which can be life threatening.

In addition, cold turkey can be bad if you relapse. For example, if you quit alcohol without treating the underlying problems behind abusing alcohol, your chances of relapse are high. When you do relapse, your alcohol tolerance will be lower – which raises risks of alcohol overdose and overdose. Therefore, if you do decide to quit, it’s a good idea to build off slowly so that you stay aware of your own tolerance. It’s also a good idea to get treatment so that you have the tools to deal with cravings and to help the underlying issues behind alcohol abuse, rather than expecting things to magically get better because you decided to quit alcohol.

Last but not least, quitting alcohol can be a traumatic event. For many people, alcohol is a coping mechanisms. Quitting means undergoing emotional and physical trauma, without the coping mechanism you’re most accustomed to. Going slowly, getting support, or only quitting all at once in a controlled detox environment are much better.

people in recovery during detox program

Ways to Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey Safely

There are two ways you can quit alcohol “cold turkey” in a safe way. The first is to go to rehab and join a detox problem. Here, you’ll stay in a clinic for the duration of withdrawal. You’ll get medical monitoring to ensure that your symptoms are safe. You’ll have doctors and nurses on hand to monitor your progress. And you’ll get psychological and emotional support throughout your withdrawal. In addition, you’ll have behavioral therapy and counseling to help you build coping mechanisms, to learn to cope with cravings, and to deal with the underlying causes behind alcohol reliance.

The second is that you can look into medication assisted treatment. For example, if your doctor doesn’t think you have behavioral health problems that should be treated as part of your recovery, you may get a prescription to help you manage alcohol. Naltrexone and acamprosate are first line choices to help you quit drinking cold turkey. These drugs work by reducing cravings and by preventing withdrawal symptoms. This means you can quit alcohol without going through the withdrawal phase, which can reduce much of the danger associated with quitting.

In addition many sobriety maintenance drugs actually prevent you from drinking if you try. Naltrexone helps you reduce desire for alcohol. Acamprosate decreases cravings. Disulfiram prevents enzyme activity of alcohol, which means you will feel like you have a bad hangover as soon as alcohol starts taking effect. Topiramate does the same, but you’ll also likely feel sleepy. The latter isn’t used often, because it has a risk of seizures.

However, any of these mean you’ll have more tools to help you quit alcohol, because you’ll be less likely to relapse. And, if you do, the relapse will have less impact, less positive effect, and significantly more negative effect, which provides negative reinforcement to relapsing.

Businessman talking about his job on psychotherapy session

Alternatives to Quitting Cold Turkey

Going cold turkey is just one of the ways to quit alcohol. Here, it’s important to talk to your doctor, get advice, and make an alcohol plan that works for your health and your mental stability.

  • Decrease Alcohol Over Time – If you’re healthy enough to reduce your alcohol consumption over time, cutting back to one drink a night, then one a week, then not at all can greatly reduce the amount of symptoms you feel. If you normally drink a great deal , you might experience light withdrawal symptoms even sticking to a single beverage at night. That will mean spreading out the amount of time you feel sick. However, it will reduce the intensity of symptoms so they’re less dangerous. In addition, you’ll be able to reduce alcohol tolerance slowly, so you’ll have a better idea of how much you need to drink to get drunk – which should help with alcohol poisoning and overdose.
  • Go to Rehab – A rehab facility can help you to detox in a safe way for your current health, metabolism, mental health, and capabilities. They’ll work with you to decide if you need or benefit from medication, what kind of support you need, and how you can best get that. That will also mean going through a 28+ day program – either from your home or while staying in a clinic. And, some facilities will ask you to go through whichever program they need you to quit using before you start attending actual therapy. In either case, you’ll have a custom program built around your needs and your capabilities of quitting – which will help.

Quitting cold turkey is a great way to immediately cut alcohol intake. That’s good if you’re a moderate alcohol user and you’re getting help to ensure you can deal with cravings and stay sober in the future. However, it can also be dangerous. Quitting without dealing with the underlying causes behind substance abuse means you’re more likely to fall back on alcohol in the future. And, withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous, even when they’re simple side-effects like dehydration. Making sure you have support and a way to stay safe while quitting alcohol is important and cold turkey often does not allow for that. Therefore, you’re always better off talking to your doctor, getting detox support, and taking small steps to help you get better.

Solace Treatment Center provides modern and effective  outpatient substance abuse treatment and outpatient mental health treatment to those looking for the next step in their recovery. Our staff of  seasoned and trained professionals are here to help you or your loved one grow into their new sober way of life.